Her Own Free Will by Ethel M. Dell
"Well, it's all over now, for better, for worse, as they say. And I hope very much as it won't be for worse."
A loud sniff expressive of grave misgiving succeeded the remark. The speaker--one of a knot of village women--edged herself a little further forward to look up the long strip of red baize that stretched from the church porch to the lych gate near which she stood. The two cracked bells were doing their best to noise abroad the importance of the event that had just taken place, which was nothing less than the marriage of Colonel Everard's daughter to Piet Cradock, the man of millions. Of the latter's very existence none of the villagers had heard till a certain day, but a few weeks before, when he had suddenly appeared at the Hall as the accepted suitor of Nan Everard, whom everyone loved.
She was only twenty, prettiest, gayest, wildest, of the whole wild tribe. Three sons and eight daughters had the Colonel--a handsome, unruly family, each one of them as lavish, as extravagant, and as undeniably attractive as he was himself.
His wife had been dead for years. They lived on the verge of bankruptcy, had done so as long as most of them could remember; but it was only of late that matters had begun to look really serious for them. It was rumoured that the Hall was already mortgaged beyond its value, and it was common knowledge that the Colonel's debts were accumulating with alarming rapidity. This marriage, so it was openly surmised, had been arranged in haste for the sole purpose of easing the strain.
For that Nan Everard cared in the smallest degree for the solemn, thick-set son of a Boer mother, to whom she had given herself, no one ever deemed possible for an instant. But he was rich, fabulously rich, and that fact counterbalanced many drawbacks. Piet Cradock owned a large share in a diamond mine in the South African Republic, and he was a person of considerable importance in his native land in consequence. He had visited England on business, but his time there had been limited to a bare six weeks. This fact had necessitated a brief wooing and a speedy marriage.
He had met the girl of his choice by a mere accident. He had chanced to be seated on her right hand at a formal dinner-party in town. Very little had passed between them then, but later, through the medium of his host, he had sought her out, and called upon her. Within a week he had asked her to be his wife. And Nan Everard, impulsive, dazzled by the prospect of unbounded wealth, and feverishly eager to ease the family burden, had accepted him.
He was obliged to sail for South Africa within three weeks of his proposal, and preparations for the marriage had therefore to be hurried forward with all speed. They were to leave for Plymouth immediately after the ceremony, and to sail on the following day.
So at breathless speed events had raced, and no one knew exactly what was the state of Nan's mind even up to the morning of her wedding-day. Perhaps she scarcely knew herself, so madly had she been whirled along in the vortex to which she had committed herself. But possibly during the ceremony some vague realisation of what she was doing came upon her, for she made her vows with a face as white as death, and in a voice that never once rose above a whisper.
But when she came at last down the church-yard path upon her husband's arm, she was laughing merrily enough. Some enthusiast had flung a shower of rice over his uncovered head, to his obvious discomfiture.
He did not laugh with her. His smooth, heavy-jawed face was absolutely unresponsive. He was fifteen years her senior, and he looked it to the full. The hair grew far back upon his head, and it had a sprinkling of grey. His height was unremarkable, but he had immensely powerful shoulders, and a bull-like breadth of chest, that imparted a certain air of arrogance to his gait. His black brows met shaggily over eyes of sombre brown. Undeniably a formidable personage, this!
Nan, glancing at him as she entered the carriage, harboured for a moment the startled reflection that if he had a beard nothing could have restrained her just then from screaming and running away. But, fortunately for her quaking dignity, his face, with the exception of those menacing eyebrows, and the lashes that shaded his gloomy eyes, was wholly free from hair.
Driving away from the church with its two clanging bells, she made a resolute effort to shake off the scared feeling that had so possessed her when she had stood at the altar with this man. If she had made a mistake, and even now she was not absolutely certain that she had--it was impossible in that turmoil of conflicting emotions to say--but if she had, it was past remedy, and she must face the consequences without shrinking. She had a conviction that he would domineer over her without mercy if she displayed any fear.
So, bravely hiding her sinking heart, she laughed and chatted for the benefit of her taciturn bridegroom with the gayest inconsequence during the brief drive to her home.
He scarcely replied. He seemed to have something on his mind also. And Nan breathed a little sigh of relief when they reached their destination, and he gravely handed her out.
A litter of telegrams on a table in the old-fashioned hall caught the girl's attention directly she entered. She pounced upon them with eager zest.
"Ah, here's one from Jerry Lister. I knew he would be sure to remember. He's the dearest boy in the world. He would have been here, but for some horrid examination that kept him at Oxford."
She opened the message impetuously, and began to read it; but suddenly, finding her husband at her side, she desisted, crumpling it in her hand with decidedly heightened colour.
"Oh, he's quite ridiculous. Let us open some of the others."
She thrust a sheaf into his hand, and busied herself with the remainder.
He did not attempt to open any of them, but stood silently watching her glowing face as she opened one after another and tossed them down.
Suddenly she raised her eyes, and met his look fully, with a certain pride.
"Is anything the matter?"
He pointed quite calmly to the scrap of paper she held crumpled in her hand.
"Are you not going to read that?" he asked, in slow, rather careful English.
Her colour deepened; it rose to her forehead in a burning wave.
"Presently," she returned briefly.
His eyes held hers with a curious insistence.
"You need not be afraid," he said very quietly; "I shall not try to look over."
Nan stared at him, too amazed for speech. The hot blood ebbed from her face as swiftly as it had risen, leaving her as white as the orange-blossoms in her hair.
At length suddenly, with a passionate gesture, she thrust out her hand to him with the ball of paper on her palm.
"Pray take it and read it," she said, her voice quivering with anger, "since it interests you so much."
He made no movement to comply.
"I do not wish to read it, Anne," he said gravely.
Her lip curled. It was the first time he had ever called her by her Christian name, and there was something exceedingly formal in the way he uttered it now. Moreover, no one ever called her anything but Nan. For some reason she was hotly indignant at this unfamiliar mode of address. It increased her anger against him tenfold.
"Take it and read it!" she reiterated, with stubborn persistence. "I wish you to do so!"
The first carriage-load of guests was approaching the house as she spoke. Cradock paused for a single instant as if irresolute, then, without more ado, he took her at her word. He smoothed the paper out without the smallest change of countenance, and read it, while she stood quivering with impotent fury by his side. It was a long telegram, and it took some seconds to read; but he did not look up till he had mastered it.
"Good-bye, sweetheart, good-bye," so ran the message--"It is no red-letter day for me, but I wish you joy with all my heart. Spare a thought now and then for the good old times and the boy you left behind you.--Your loving Jerry."
Amid a buzz of congratulation, Piet Cradock handed the missive back to his bride with a simple "Thank you!" that revealed nothing whatever of what was in his mind.
She took it, without looking at him, with nervous promptitude, and the incident passed.
The guests were many, and Nan's attention was very fully occupied. No casual observer, seeing her smiling face, would have suspected the turmoil of doubt that underlay her serenity.
Only Mona, her favourite sister, had the smallest inkling of it, but even Mona was not in Nan's confidence just then. No intimate word of any sort passed between them up in the old bedroom that they had shared all their lives during the fleeting half-hour that Nan spent preparing for her journey. They could neither of them bear to speak of the coming separation, and that embodied everything.
The only allusion that Nan made to it was as she passed out of the room with her arm round her sister's shoulders, and whispered:
"Don't sleep by yourself to-night, darling. Make Lucy join you."
They descended the stairs, holding closely to each other. Old Colonel Everard, very red and tearful, met them at the foot, and folded Nan tightly in his arms, murmuring inarticulate words of blessing.
Nan emerged from his embrace pale but quite tearless.
"Au revoir, dad!" she said, in her sprightliest tone. "You will be having me back like a bad half-penny before you can turn round."
Still laughing, she went from one to another of her family with words of careless farewell, and finally rah the gauntlet of her well-wishers to the waiting carriage, into which she dived without ceremony to avoid the hail of rice that pursued her.
Her husband followed her closely, and they were off almost before he took his seat beside her.
"Thank goodness, that's over!" said Nan, with fervour. "I'll never marry again if I live to be a hundred! I am sure being buried must be much more fun, and not nearly so ignominious."
She leaned forward with the words, and was on the point of letting down the window, when there was a sudden, deafening report close to them. The carriage jerked and swerved violently, and in an instant it was being whirled down the drive at the top speed of two terrified horses.
Instinctively Nan turned to the man beside her.
"It's the boys!" she exclaimed. "They said they should fire a salute! But--but--"
She broke off, amazed to find his arms gripping her tightly, forcing her back in her seat, holding her pressed to him with a strength that took her breath away.
It all came--a multitude of impressions--crowded into a few brief seconds; yet every racing detail was engraved with awful distinctness upon the girl's mind, never to be forgotten.
She struggled wildly in that suffocating hold, struggled fruitlessly to lift her face from her husband's shoulder into which it was ruthlessly pressed, and only ceased to struggle when the end of that terrible flight came with a jolt and a jar and a final, sickening crash that flung her headlong into a dreadful gulf of emptiness into which no light or echo of sound could even vaguely penetrate.